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Olympic Coast Marine Environment

The Olympic Coast Alliance focuses on the waters of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (OCNMS) and the western portion of the Strait of Juan de Fuca (click here to view a map of OCA's area of iterest). This diverse marine area includes cold water-corals, kelp forests, abundant marine mammals, numerous sea birds, prolific fisheries, and a nutrient rich up-welling zone off Cape Flattery named the Big Eddy.

Scientists have only recently discovered deep-sea cold-water corals in the OCNMS. These unique and beautiful corals serve as a nursery ground for multiple fish species, some of which are economically important to tribal and other commercial fisheries.

Kelp forests are perhaps the most intriguing habitat off the coast. Kelp forms the backbone of a complex ecosystem that includes primary producers, herbivores, and predators. Kelp forests provide shelter for juvenile fish, supporting one of the most prolific fisheries along the coast. Kelp forests off the coast have declined substantially during the past century. Research has not determined the cause, but some local residents believe that sediment from logging has contributed to the decline.

The Big Eddy (click here to learn more about the Big Eddy) is an open water area between Cape Flattery and Vancouver Island. Up welling of nutrients from the ocean bottom creates abundant food sources for fish, marine mammals, and sea birds. The Big Eddy is an extremely popular area for commercial and recreational fishing. It is also a very busy traffic lane for cargo vessels and oil tankers transiting to and from the Puget Sound.

Three species of endangered whales use Olympic Coast marine waters. These include the gray whale, the humpback whale, and the killer whale (also called Orca). Olympic Coast marine waters serve as an important feeding ground as these whales migrate along the coast (often within easy view of observes on land).

Sea otters are another important resident of the Olympic Coast. While spending some time in the intertidal area (click here to learn more about Olympic Coast intertidal areas), sea otters are also crucial for maintaining an ecological balance in kelp forests. Although driven nearly to extinction by trapping, this endangered population is starting to recover off the coast following reintroduction.

Sea birds are the most conspicuous residents off the Olympic Coast. Nutrient up welling from the ocean floor creates a food sources that attracts permanent residents, as well as many species from upland rainforests. Tufted puffins and marbled murrelets are two of these species that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Olympic Coast contains significant commercial and recreational fish resources. Multiple species of salmon, rockfish, trout, and halibut inhabit these coastal waters for at least a portion of their lifecycle. Deep-sea corals, kelp forests, and nutrient rich up-welling areas are critical for the survival and reproduction of many of these fish. These fisheries serve as a food source and important economic base for coastal tribes and local communities.

There are several major threats to Olympic Coast marine areas. An oil spill would devastate coastal resources, as well as destroy local fisheries (click here to review the OCA position paper on oil spills). Recent national policy changes have created the potential for renewed offshore oil exploration. Increased shipping, both cargo and oil, have also increased the risk of an oil spill, especially in the busy entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Aquaculture is a threat to Olympic Coast marine resources. Aquaculture is currently being promoted as a way to decrease US dependence on foreign fisheries. In addition to creating huge amounts of concentrated waste, aquaculture also contaminates wild fish with parasites and undermines wild fish genetics through interbreeding with escaped fish.

Research by federal and university scientists has documented widespread devastation of deep-sea corals by trawling (a form of fishing that drags a roller across the bottom of the sea). Click here to see the OCA position paper on trawling. Fisheries management councils are currently examining regulations that could reduce, but not fully eliminate these damages.

The US Navy currently manages a small underwater test range off the Olympic Coast. They are proposing a major expansion of the test range (click here to review OCA’s position paper on the Naval test range expansion). Increased Naval research may impact sensitive species (especially sonar related research that may harm marine mammals). There is also the possibility that security concerns may preclude marine research that is needed to more fully understand the Olympic Coast ecosystem.

There are many opportunities for citizens to help protect Olympic Coast marine resources. The Sanctuary management plan review is schedule to begin during the fall of 2005. It will be an excellent forum to review oil spill, aquaculture, trawling, and naval testing issues. Continued Washington State funding for the emergency tugboat stationed at Neah Bay is critical. Washington State adoption of an aggressive oil spill contingency plan and adequate funding to implement the plan are also important. Public participation in the environmental review of the Navy’s test range expansion is possible.